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Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

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E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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January 20, 2008

The Campaign Press is a Herd of Independent Minds

I've got a big new piece up at (and at My attempt to move beyond lamenting horse race journalism to explain why it persists. "Campaign reporters tend to be massively other-directed. The reality-check is what the rest of the press is doing."

The piece is called The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. It’s about how the campaign media cannot easily make decisions, change course, or learn from its screw-ups because it is a “herd of independent minds.”

Todd Gitlin (who’s been a critic of horse race journalism for even longer than I have) began his response to “Beast” this way:

I ranted to a “60 Minutes” producer that the campaign coverage was shallow, trivial, preoccupied with the evanescent ups and the electrifying downs, the insiders’ moods, the rumors and gaffes, and incurious about the candidates’ records, and the weight or weightlessness of their arguments, the truth and untruth of their claims, and seemingly indifferent to the stakes of the most consequential election on earth. “I know, I know,” he said. “We talk constantly about how to do it better next time.”

That was in 1980.

Seven “cycles” ago. (A cycle is what a campaign insider calls an election.) Obviously the horse race fulfills a purpose for the press, and that purpose goes on… and on. But what is the point? You’ll have to read The Beast Without a Brain to find out. (Begins after the jump…) Oh, and don’t miss Zack Exley’s detailed report at OffTheBus: Organizing Matters: The Lesson from Hillary’s Nevada Win. A good example of what the horse race press doesn’t know and never will.

The Beast Without a Brain

Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us

By Jay Rosen

Originally published at, Jan. 20, 2008

Just so you know, “the media” has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not “get behind” candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. Nor does it “buy” this line or “swallow” that one. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.

1. The Herd of Independent Minds

This does not mean you cannot blame the media for things. Go right ahead! Brainless beasts at large in public life can do plenty of damage; and later on — when people ask, “What happened here?” — it sometimes does make sense to say… the beast did this. It’s known as “the pack” in political journalism, but I prefer “the herd of independent minds” (from Harold Rosenberg, 1959) because I think it’s more descriptive of the dynamic. Mark Halperin of Time’s The Page (more about him later) calls the beast the Gang of 500. But gangs have leaders, which means a mind. That’s more than you can say about the media.

Now, the pack, lacking a brain, almost had a heart attack when Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, since they had told us Obama would run away with it because the pollsters told them the same thing. The near-heart attack wasn’t triggered by a bad prediction, which can happen to anyone, but rather by some spectacular wreckage in the reality-making machinery of political journalism. The top players had begun to report on the Obama wave of victories before there was any Obama wave of victories. The campaign narrative had gotten needlessly — one could say mindlessly — ahead of itself, as when stories about anticipated outcomes in the New Hampshire vote reverberated into campaigns said to be preparing for those outcomes even before New Hampshire voted.

“PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Key campaign officials may be replaced. She may start calling herself the underdog. Donors would receive pleas that it is do-or-die time. And her political strategy could begin mirroring that of Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican rival…”

That’s Patrick Healy in the New York Times the day of the New Hampshire primary, reporting on what would happen, according to nameless campaign insiders, if events about to unfold that day validated previous reports about what was likely to unfold that day. Healy’s best defense would be: Wait a minute, people with the Clinton campaign actually told me those things. They turned out to be premature and wrong. I didn’t make it up!

Which is true. But when actual facts are used in the construction of news fictions — and reports about the moves to be made in Hillaryland after Obama won Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were precisely that, a news fiction — your story can be accurate, well-edited, within genre conventions, and, at the same time, deeply un-informational, not to mention wrong. In fact, accurate news about the race that subtracts from our understanding of it is one of the quirky features of chronic mindlessness in campaign media.

By mindless I generally mean: No one’s in charge, or “the process” is. Conventional forms thrive, even if few believe they work. Routines master people. The way it’s been done “chooses” the way it shall be done.

Independent bloggers, who should have more distance from the pack mind (and often do) were not necessarily better on this score. Greg Sargent of TPM Media — the blog empire run by political journalist Josh Marshall — reported as follows on January 7th: “Camp Hillary insiders who have been with her a very long time, such as Patti Solis Doyle, are worried about the long term damage that could be done to Hillary if she decides to fight on after a New Hampshire loss, though there’s no indication they are yet urging an exit.” Doyle was said to be alarmed about damage to Clinton’s Senate career from staying in the race amid a humiliating string of defeats.

Campaign news in the subjunctive isn’t really news. And primary losses don’t especially need to come at us pre-reacted-to, especially when there is plenty of time to air those reactions once any “string of defeats” actually happens. But while an individual mind in the press corps is quite capable of realizing this, the herd is not.

A good example would be an MSNBC program I saw just before the New Hampshire voting, where Dan Abrams asked his panel — including Rachel Maddow, Pat Buchanan, and himself — what each thought the final vote would be. The guests should have said, “How do we know? We’re not New Hampshire voters, or professional pollsters.” That would be intelligent — and accurate. But they did something mindless instead. Each took a few points off the polls everyone else in the pack was reading and gave a “personal” prediction — Obama by 4, Obama by 7.

Okay, so it’s not a big offense — but I didn’t say it was. I said it was an illustration of routine mindlessness. That’s when on-air journalism is dumber than the journalists who are on air.

Greg Sargent — a smart reporter, quite aware of the absurdities the pack produces – can, without great difficulty, dial back the use of nameless advisers pre-reacting to things that may not occur. (This post from his boss, Josh Marshall, suggests it may happen.) But the fact remains that his account, defining reactions-before-the-fact as news, was within the existing rules of journalism, relied upon by hundreds of other reporters adding their stories to the larger narrative. There’s nothing to prevent those rules from being changed, of course. Nothing, except for the fact that the media has no mind and so can’t easily change it.

2. Convergence of Judgment

Because we have evolved a way of talking about the news media that fails to recognize this very basic fact — no mind! can’t decide a thing! — everyone is free to grant more intentionality to the organism than reasonably exists. Here are just a few samples from recent weeks:

  • Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: “The media have decided, fairly or unfairly, that Iowa was Edwards’s best shot at winning the nomination.”
  • John Amato, Crooks and Liars: “The media will treat Democrats much harsher than Republicans from here on in.”
  • Ken Silverstein, Harpers: “Another factor in Obama’s favor is (just as the Clinton campaign claims) that the media seems to be strongly in his corner.”
  • Blogger Tom Watson: “At the start of the campaign, I didn’t think the national media could possibly be successful in an anti-woman campaign against a Democrat.”
  • Chris Bowers at Open Left: “OK, The Media Hates Clinton-But Why?”

I think we know why people speak this way. We use collective nouns, even when they mash way too much together, because, despite all the flattening and collapsing, there is some rough justice in saying, “The media loves Obama right now.” We know we’re speaking imperfectly, or metaphorically, but we also know we’re observing something that’s really happening.

And that’s fine, normal, human even. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember: The media has no mind. It might appear to decide things, but if no one takes responsibility for “Edwards must win Iowa,” then it’s not really a decision the media made, but a convergence of judgment among people who may instantly converge around a different judgment if it turns out that Edwards isn’t done after failing to win Iowa.

That’s pretty mindless. Strangely, though, the argument that the media has no mind serves almost no one’s agenda, with one exception, ably represented by Jon Stewart, but including all who satirize the news and the news criers, exposing their collective mindlessness and making it almost… enjoyable.

3. “We have special insight”

John Harris and Jim VandeHei, formerly of the Washington Post, are the top editors of The Politico, a new newspaper-and-web operation that only does politics. After the New Hampshire screw-up, which they called a “debacle” and a “humiliation,” Harris and VandeHei asked themselves why their profession, political reporting, “supposedly devoted to depicting reality, obsesses about so many story lines that turn out to be fiction.”

This is an excellent question and it’s admirable that they don’t mince words in framing it. “The loser — not just of Tuesday’s primary but of the 2008 campaign cycle so far — was us,” they write. That would be the pack, “…the community of reporters, pundits and prognosticators who so confidently — and so rashly — stake our reputations on the illusion that we understand politics and have special insight that allows us to predict the behavior of voters.”

A key point: “we have special insight.” The current generation of political reporters has based its bid for election-year authority on its horse race and handicapping skills. But reporters actually have no such skills. Think: what does a Howard Fineman (Newsweek, MSNBC) know about politics in America? I mean, what would you logically turn to him for? It’s got to be: Who’s ahead, what’s the strategy, and how are the insiders sizing up the contest? That’s supposedly his expertise, if he has any expertise; and if he doesn’t have any expertise, then what is he doing on my television screen, night after night, talking about politics?

Even if Fineman and company had it, the ability to handicap the race is a pretty bogus skill set. Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you? Why do we need people who know how this is going to play out in South Carolina when we can just wait for the voters to play it out themselves?

Among the “bogus narratives” the campaign press has developed so far, the Politico editors chose three to illustrate their humiliation. John McCain’s “collapse” in the summer of 2007, which meant we could write him off; Mike Huckabee’s win in Iowa, where the candidate without an organization took a state where electoral success, we were assured, was all about organization; and Obama’s “change the tone in politics” campaign which, according to the Gang, was not going to be in tune with the voters’ rawer, more partisan feelings in ‘08. All three were a bust, suggesting political journalists have no special insight into: How is this going to play out? What they have are cheap, portable routines in which you ask that kind of question, and try to get ahead of the race. This, too, is what I mean by mindlessness.

“If journalists were candidates, there would be insurmountable pressure for us to leave the race,” say Harris and VandeHei about their sorry-ass performance in ‘08. But they’re at sea in trying to explain why such things happen. They blame addiction to the game of politics, journalists and their sources hanging out too much together, and personal bias among reporters unconsciously rooting for the candidate who is more fun to cover. Those are certainly three factors. Another 23 could be listed without running out of plausible reasons, because what they’re really grappling with is routine mindlessness in their institution. Explaining that is a bit harder.

4. “Removed from the experience”

A much better attempt was this short and consistently to the point entry by Christopher Hayes of the Nation magazine: “WHY CAMPAIGN COVERAGE SO OFTEN SUCKS.” He starts with something that is known to everyone in the pack: Campaign reporting is an essay in fear.

“Reporting at events like this is exciting and invigorating, but it’s also terrifying. I’ve done it now a number of times at conventions and such, and in the past I was pretty much alone the entire time. I didn’t know any other reporters, so I kept to myself and tried to navigate the tangle of schedules and parking lots and hotels and event venues. It’s daunting and the whole time you think: ‘Am I missing something? What’s going? Oh man, I should go interview that guy in the parka with the fifteen buttons on his hat.’ You fear getting lost, or missing some important piece of news, or making an ass out of yourself when you have to muster up that little burst of confidence it takes to walk up to a stranger and start asking them questions.”

Whereas he had once thought of it as a rookie’s experience, this year he learned that the fear never goes away. “Veteran reporters are just as panicked about getting lost or missing something, just as confused about who to talk to. This why reporters move in packs. It’s like the first week of freshman orientation, when you hopped around to parties in groups of three dozen, because no one wanted to miss something or knew where anything was.”

It is rare to find a campaign correspondent who is inner-directed, with a vision of how to report on the election season that sends her off on her own. Campaign reporters tend to be massively other-directed. The reality-check is what the rest of the press is doing — and the Web makes it far easier to check. Mindless.

“When you go to one of these events as a reporter, there’s part of you that’s aware that you don’t really belong there,” writes Hayes.

“You’re an outsider, standing on the edges observing the people who are there doing the actual stuff of politics: listening to a candidate, cheering, participating. So reporters run with that distance: they crack wise, they kibbitz in the back, they play up their detachment. That leads to coverage that is often weirdly condescending and removed from the experience of politics.”

Removed from the experience. Well, yeah. That is the number one virtue of horse-race reporting and the inside baseball mentality: speed of removal from the immediate experience. Hayes thinks the “worst features of campaign reporting” can be traced back to the “psychological defenses that reporters erect to deal with their insecurities.” First line of defense: pack behavior. A second is what the Politico guys said: “the illusion that we understand politics” and with our special insight can predict the behavior of voters, anticipate a turn in the narrative, divine a winning strategy.

Maybe this illusion is reproduced for us because it is fear-reducing for them to mount the horse-race production.

5. Under the influence.

In November, Mark Halperin of Time, who is both a student of pack behavior and a creature of the pack, wrote a revealing op-ed piece about this “illusion that we understand.” He said he had been under the influence of Richard Ben Cramer’s massive and fascinating book, What It Takes, about the 1988 battle for the White House. Halperin wrote:

“I’m not alone. The book’s thesis — that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office — has shaped the universe of political coverage.

“Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has ‘what it takes’ to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win.”

Right there, Halperin identifies the roots of mindlessness in campaign coverage: All right, press team, when that door opens, I want you go out there and find out for us… WHO IS GOING TO WIN?

That’s the baseline question. But how good a question is it?

The only decent definition of “information” I know of states that it is a measure of uncertainty reduced. But voters are the ones who reduce uncertainty in elections. They can do it pretty well themselves, without the help of horse-race journalists. Halperin once thought it fine to obsess over “the race,” because he considered the race a good proxy for the leadership test we’re supposed to be conducting during the now-well-more-than-a-year it takes to elect a new president.

“But now I think I was wrong,” he writes. George W. Bush passed his horse-race test and flunked the leadership test once in office. So did Bill Clinton, Halperin says. Both were good campaigners and strategists. Their weaknesses only became glaring to the pack when they were in office, he argues.

Let me say it again: Reporters have no special insight into how elections will turn out. According to Halperin, a thesis that has “shaped the universe of political coverage” is false; the rigors of the race do not produce good outcomes. So what does the pack do now? “Well, we pause, take a deep breath and resist. At least sometimes… we can try to keep from getting sucked in by it all.”

This is the same limp remedy Harris and VandeHei offered. They know they’re stuck with horse-race journalism. They know what a mindless beast it can be — and what a mindless beast they can be. And, above all else, they know they’re not going to change it. After all, they are it. Glenn Greenwald of Salon was right to point to this exchange between NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews as the results from New Hampshire came in…

“BROKAW: You know what I think we’re going to have to do?

“MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

“BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

“MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.”

Matthews was being the realist: Without who’s-going-to-win, “we” might as well stay home. Brokaw (now long retired as the face of the NBC brand) gave him an apt warning in response: “The people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding.” But he was speaking as if the media had a mind and could shift course.

6. Less innocence, more politics.

Let’s see if we can bring these strands together. I’ve been picking at the weaknesses of horse-race coverage, but to really understand it we need to appreciate its practical strengths.

Who’s-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It “works” regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the “surprise” becomes a good story for a few days.) Who’s going to win — and what’s their strategy — plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.

But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to “play up their detachment.” Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit roundtable turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there’s an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion. But a potent one.

Imagine if we had them all — the whole Gang of 500 — in a room and we asked them (off the record): How many of you feel roughly qualified to be Secretary of State? Ted Koppel having retired, no hands would go up. Secretary of the Treasury? No hands. White House Chief of Staff? Maybe one or two would raise a hand. Qualified to be President? No one would dare say that. Strategist for a presidential campaign? I’d say at least 200 hands would shoot up. Reporters identify with those guys — the behind-the-scenes message senders — and they cultivate the same knowledge.

What a waste! Journalists ought to be bringing new knowledge into the system, as Charlie Savage and the Boston Globe did in December. They gave the presidential candidates a detailed questionnaire on the limits of executive branch power and nine candidates responded. This is a major issue that any candidate for president should have to address, given the massive build-up of presidential power engineered by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. We desperately need to know what the contenders for the presidency intend to do — continue the build-up or roll it back? — but we won’t know unless the issue is injected into the campaign.

Now, that’s both a political and a journalistic act. And where does the authority for doing such things come from? There is actually no good answer to that within the press system as it stands, and so the beast would never go there.

The Globe’s questionnaire grew out of Savage’s earlier reporting on the “unitary executive” and the drive to create an “unfettered presidency.” (See this PBS interview with Savage; also, contrast the Globe’s treatment with more of a throwaway effort from the New York Times.)

Here, the job of the campaign press is not to preempt the voters’ decision by asking endlessly, and predicting constantly, who’s going to win. The job is to make certain that what needs to be discussed will be discussed in time to make a difference – and then report on that.

Jay Rosen teaches Journalism at New York University, and is the creator of the blog, PressThink. He also writes for the Huffington Post. In July 2006 he started NewAssignment.Net, his experimental site for pro-am, open source reporting projects. He is the co-publisher with Arianna Huffington of OfftheBus, a collaboration between NewAssignment.Net and the Huffington Post in which citizen journalists tackle the ‘08 campaign.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 20, 2008 10:38 PM   Print


Jay, I like the piece but I think you're too lenient in letting slide the contention that reporters are "unconsciously rooting for the candidate who is more fun to cover." There's nothing unconscious about it; reporters are quite open about their lust for, e.g., John mcCain. Jake Weisberg at Slate recently wrote a story on how much journalists would enjoy a McCain-Obama matchup because they really like those guys. In 2000, many reporters were openly scornful of Gore, whom they disliked, and charitable toward Bush, whom they liked. Lots of reporters like Huckabee because he's fun to be around, and the coverage reflects that.

When high-status reporters hold conscious biases toward or against a candidate, they're going to influence the rest of the herd. So while there's merit to the notion that the media has no mind, it's not entirely accurate; there are decision-makers among them who help shape the long-term narratives of a campaign season.

Halperin, with his Drudge worship, is a case in point. Journalists don't have to go screaming down whatever path Drudge marks with his red flasher, but they do. At some point, that was a conscious decision. Halperin didn't have to compare Drudge favorably to Walter Cronkite, but he did. For reasons that escape me, Halperin remains quite influential among his peers, so his infirmities become their infirmities.

Anyway. Just some thoughts. It's a good piece.

Cheers, Weldon

Posted by: weldon berger at January 21, 2008 1:31 AM | Permalink

On certain topics, the media most certainly has a mind. When it comes to illegal immigration, the mind is laser-focused on trying to ignore that topic or, if they must, obfuscate it.

For instance, several MSM reports on Huck have mentioned that some people oppose him due to his support for illegal immigration. However, I'm not aware of a single MSM reporter (WND isn't MSM) ever digging for the details of his support and asking him about this deal. Instead, we get performances like this:

The most innocent explanation is that they don't want to discuss this topic in a grown-up fashion because they're afraid of far-left groups calling them names for being honest about the topic. Another explanation is that they're sheltered elites. The explanation I give more weight to involve their bosses profiting from illegal immigration in some way either financially or electorally or being linked to those who do.

Posted by: NoMoreBlatherDotCom [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 2:16 AM | Permalink

Jay, Thank you for a good article. I tracked it back from so I could respond directly.

Perhaps "the media," as a group of high-profile pundits has come to be called, is indeed a brainless herd, but they do have interests. Every beast must eat. Their food is tension, drama, fear, sex, ... any instinctual drive that will reliably attract and hold attention. This is what they are paid to do under our current system of advertizing-driven media corporations. Making too much noise scares the "game" away, by giving the game away, which is why they hide behind the pretense of journalism: "The public has a right to know and we inform the public, therefore we serve a useful function and should be taken seriously." Except, they do not inform the public very well. They do not work for us at all. They work for themselves.

For some time now we have heard from the right that the "liberal media" was biased toward the left; meanwhile the left has pointed out the corporate nature of the media as evidence for a bias toward the right. The truth would seem to be that the media in general is biased toward itself. (This is true also of polemicists who do take a clear right or left stance.) The cardinal rule seems to be, "Thou shalt increase dramatic conflict and prolong stories. Thou shalt not lose audience share." Thus the method for political coverage (I can't call it reportage) often seems to be to tack back and forth in an effort to exert maximal influence and control over "the story." The reality of voter interests and our need for substantive information is irrelevant to the process of creating exciting drama. This is why the media loves war and why they also love close elections. If the electorate is moving toward a majority landslide in either direction, the media work against the "front-runner" to narrow the gap, thereby increasing their power to influence outcomes and sustain tension. This process does not require much of a mind; it is an instinct inculcated in those who have risen from the ranks of mere reporters. Facts are meaningless, spin is all.

If we are to change this "beast" into a true public servant deserving of its first amendment rights, we must find a way of moving the feed bowl. The Dog Whisperer shows how a beast can be tamed and made to behave in a civil manner, despite its wild instincts. It will take time to create a "mind" for the media beast and bloggers, such as yourself, are helping that effort by making the TV punditocracy, "The Media," into the news. When you point the spotlight on them and on the problem their instincts cause, namely an ill-served political process, you are beginning to create a new vision for how "News" can become better at its job, accurately informing the public. For that, I thank you.

Michael Aschenbach, author of VISION 3000, The Transformation of Humanity in the New Millennium, president of Emerging Vision Media ( ), and media futurist.

Posted by: Michael Aschenbach at January 21, 2008 3:37 AM | Permalink

Indeed, a good article. But I see some implications worth teasing out.

Firstly, this quality of mindlessness in the press is by no means confined to political campaigns. Anyone who really knows a topic -- as broad as a major field of scholarship, or as narrow as a single event they witnessed -- agrees that the accounts of that subject in the press nearly always "subtract from our understanding of it", even when the bare facts are what the press reports them to be. Nor is this defect a new thing; Dr. Rosen traces it back to the 1980 elections, but the paradigmatic example was Cronkite's blunder over the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Secondly, most of the ideas held by American intellectuals about how the world works, they hold because of things they read in newspapers or saw on television. This is inevitable, if there is a press at all; no single person can learn enough to check the press' accuracy on every subject. But at present, when for at least forty years the press has been incapable of recognizing significant truths, or of correcting important errors, it follows that the worldview of the US intelligentsia has been accumulating mistakes and misjudgements, and by now is far removed from empirical reality.

Thirdly, while distorted judgement is the common fate of all Americans, for we all must listen when the press speaks, there are trades and professions in which misjudgements are swiftly punished by losses of property, freedom, or life; and there are others in which misjudgements carry very little penalty -- the press itself falling into the latter set. One would expect that people in the former set have less distorted and more reliable worldviews than those in the latter do. It is therefore worth noting that people in the former set don't, as a group, have a consistent partisan bias, but those in the latter do: the famous statistic, that 91% of journalists vote for Democrats, is reflected by equally lopsided voting among professors in the humanities and social sciences.

John Stuart Mill said of the Tories in his day that it was the stupid party, because all the stupid people were drawn to it; by the same rule, we would have to name the Democrats today the ignorant party, for all the people whose knowledge of the world comes from the press alone are reliable Democratic voters. And where Mill wished to suggest that the Tory platform of his day was itself stupid, and that was why stupid people voted for it; so today it's hard not to suspect that the Democratic platform is a product of ignorance, and this is why ignorant people favor it. An uncharitable suspicion, to be sure -- but not therefore unfounded ...

Posted by: Michael Brazier at January 21, 2008 5:58 AM | Permalink

Thanks, all. I will be offline most of the day but will respond late tonight or tomorrow.

Weldon: you're right about the word "unconsciously." That's probably the wrong term there.

Some of the comments at Salon are interesting.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 21, 2008 7:55 AM | Permalink

Jellyfish have no "mind" but manage to get places more or less all together. I say jellyfish because they are agglomerations of individual entities.

I should say that my biology is so old that we only had two kingdoms, plant and animal. I understand we're up to six now.

But the point about jellyfish stands. You don't need a controller for a bunch of folks to get to the same place, or the same places all the time.

That being the case, the assertion that the media lacks a "mind" is not relevant.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 21, 2008 8:59 AM | Permalink

Just so we're clear, this is the "Herd of Independent Minds" that got together and coached John Kerry on how to work with them in 2004, yes?

Posted by: richard mcenroe [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 10:56 AM | Permalink

jay, I think you are wrong here. In describing one of the "busted" narratives...

and Obama's "change the tone in politics" campaign which, according to the Gang, was not going to be in tune with the voters' rawer, more partisan feelings in '08.

In this instance, the press was observing a phenomenon, and commenting on it (and in doing so, shaped the campaign). Obama's national poll numbers rose quickly, then stalled and started slipping aounnd the end of July. By the beginning of October, the pundits were saying that unless Obama went on the attack against Hillary, he was doomed. Obama responded, gave an interview in which he said he was going to go after Hillary -- and the press went crazy with anticipation of the "attack" on Clinton at the Philadelphia debate.

Well, that attack came, but from all sides, including the moderators, and Obama's criticism was not considered "sharp" enough. So in the post debate period, Obama "sharpened" his attacks on Clinton (this was during the whole 'drivers license' debacle) and the pundits were satisfied -- and Obama's poll numbers started going up sharply again.

I think the phrase "without a mind" is inaccurate because the media operates primarily by instinct, but are also capable of "learning" from experience, much as a pack of wild dogs do. Unfortunately, their instincts are not directed toward informing the public, but toward ratings, by-lines and TV face time.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at January 21, 2008 11:31 AM | Permalink

For a "herd of independent minds" their political views and blind spots sure seem to have a high correlation coefficient.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at January 21, 2008 11:56 AM | Permalink

Here's a long article with several examples of the MSM thinking as one when it comes to immigration matters. See the archives at my main site for dozens more examples.

Posted by: NoMoreBlatherDotCom [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 1:02 PM | Permalink

Well, the "boys on the bus" are seemingly unable to engage in any form of reportage other than horse-race reporting. When they actually try to engage in dialogue with the candidates and (shock horror) try to point out when the candidates have been less than consistent or honest, this is what happens.
Quite clearly, the candidates themselves regard the following media as stenographers to be used simply as amplification mouthpieces. They are certainly not expected to ask any awkward questions or any question that might Make The Candidate Look Bad.
The mistake the media have made is that they have gone along with the role that the candidates expect of them. The AP reporter will no doubt have been reminded of that role at some point...

Posted by: Graham Shevlin at January 21, 2008 2:04 PM | Permalink

Your article serves to remind me of the Scott-Taylor Theorem of Groups:

The collective IQ of a group can be determined by averaging the IQ of the group and dividing by the number of people in the group.

This theorem was developed after years of observation while working with a large performing choir. You could tell an individual, "the bus is here, you need to get on the bus," and they would pretty much do what they were told. But, approach a group of 5 or more and say the same thing and you get blank stares, or they question each other about the bus really being there or why these other people aren't getting on the bus.

This is one reason why the military and other organizations keep their "teams" to a small group of people with a strong leader. It improves the intelligence of the group.

Posted by: Rusty at January 21, 2008 3:41 PM | Permalink

I thought your piece was perceptive as well as provocative. I was particularly interested in the Boston Globe story you cited. Are there any other examples out there of "mindful" political journalism?

How about a Top 10 list of other story ideas that would go beyond the horse-race nonsense? The problem is fairly obvious. The Globe story sounds like part of the solution. We need more of that.

Posted by: Ken at January 21, 2008 4:46 PM | Permalink

I think the line that stuck out most for me was, "spectacular wreckage in the reality-making machinery of political journalism."

I immediately hearkened back to this Pressthink essay, PressThink Basics: The Master Narrative in Journalism:

Paul Taylor, a former political reporter for the Washington Post who covered presidential campaigns, wrote this in 1992:
Political stories don’t just ‘happen’ the way hailstorms do. They are artifacts of a political universe that journalism itself has helped to construct. They are components of a journalistic master narrative built around two principle story lines: the search for the candidates’ character flaws, and the depiction of the campaign as a horserace, full of ploys and surprises, tenacity and treachery, rising action and falling action, winners and losers.
Taylor’s use of “construct” intrigues me for two reasons. Journalists, he’s saying, help create the universe from which they draw news, which is a truthful but disruptive observation. How to report the news—accurately, fairly, comprehensively—is something we know how to teach in journalism school. How to construct the public arena (accurately, fairly, comprehensively? do these terms even make sense?) is not. It’s pretty clear where the authority to report the news comes from; it’s not clear where the authority to construct the world lies, or could lie.
In an overly simplistic form, journalism's self-ideology (religion) can be narrowed down to 3 tenets:
  1. objective outsiders
  2. narrative sense-makers
  3. trusted Guardians
This ideology has a goal, a process and a resultant stance:
  • fairness/balance = the professional goal for the product
  • objectivity = process to reach goal
  • neutrality = ethos of the process
  • credibility = byproduct of ethos
  • trust = byproduct of credibility
  • innocence = stance taken in regard to the product if the process is followed
What I've found interesting recently, is how difficult it is to discuss how closely the signified resulting from (pack) journalism signifiers correlates to the referent. And how useful it is (should be) as a way to understand causality, ambiguity and as a predictor of events.

What I find specifically interesting in recent Pressthink threads is the "expected" normative difference between political rhetoric and journalistic rhetoric.

Posted by: Tim at January 21, 2008 6:16 PM | Permalink

So far, the talk has been about campaigns.

But herd think extends to other subjects. The Duke lacrosse case comes to mind.
We'll see how many pick up the meme the NYT had of the ravaging Viet Nam--oops, I mean Iraqi--veterans.
Despite its evisceration--faster even than Rather's bogus memos--on the web, the MSM hasn't done much either way.
IMO, the best thing for the MSM to do is to explain how the NYT blew it and question their motives. Never happen.
Next best, just do the real facts. Not gonna happen.
Next best. Ignore it. Might happen.
Most likely, extend and emphasize the bullshit.

We'll see which way the herd goes.

Meantime, the NYT can spend even more time wondering why their credibility is in the flusher.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 21, 2008 10:12 PM | Permalink

Hi Jay:

In Christopher Hayes piece, which you quote from, and in which he talks about pack journalism, he writes:

You need to deal with the structural issues that reinforce these tendencies.

The journalists are comfortable when embedded with their own, and apparently when embedded with soldiers in war zones.

Well how about building structures where they get embedded and made to feel welcome with every day citizens. You know, the ones who actually elect presidents. You have your beat blogging experiment, but how about citizen hosts, who invite visiting reporters on the campaign trail in for a pizza and beer with their neighbors.

Just a thought, I was hoping to hear more about the citizen journalism, networked journalism role in helping solve the problem.

As usual a very thought provoking piece, keep up the great work.

Posted by: Leonard Witt at January 21, 2008 11:03 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Len.

Honestly, I didn't want to deal with solutions in this piece. As a writer, I just decided not to, and instead point to OffTheBus in my bio to show that I am involved in the search for alternatives.

Here, I wanted to take one idea--mindlessness--and like a thread pull it through the (very well known) horse race material to see if the horse race looks any different if you see it as that: mindless behavior by the media, which has no mind anyway.

Of course the challenge for such an extreme-sounding interpretation is to explain how it could be functional for the campaign press to be mindless. So that is also what I tried to do. (I am aware there are many other ways to explain it, different than mine.)

Tim: A lot of this goes back to that Taylor quote, which I used a lot in things I wrote, including my book, What Are Journalists For? In particular the idea of "innocence" or, as Taylor put it, "seeking truth, but also seeking refuge" (from anticipated criticism.) I re-formulated that idea in these lines, which to me are the key lines in the essay:

Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because "who's gonna win?" is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists.

Which also comes out of various PressThink comment threads.

Graham: To follow on your point, are you aware of what the candidates and their staffs, gurus, advisors call "political coverage"....? To then, the term of art is "free media." As contrasted with paid media, or advertising. Free ads, as against paid ads, one might intuit. (Free variety also known as "earned media," which is a trip in itself, that term.)

I really liked this part of Michael Aschebach's interpretation and comment:

For some time now we have heard from the right that the "liberal media" was biased toward the left; meanwhile the left has pointed out the corporate nature of the media as evidence for a bias toward the right. The truth would seem to be that the media in general is biased toward itself.
Yes, this is part of what I was trying to say.
"Thou shalt increase dramatic conflict and prolong stories. Thou shalt not lose audience share." Thus the method for political coverage (I can't call it reportage) often seems to be to tack back and forth in an effort to exert maximal influence and control over "the story."

Correct. And I think the tacking tends to confuse and frustrate some of the more ideological critics.

The Iowa Caucuses, which we just went through, make clear sense only when we see them as an effort by the news media to exert maximal influence over "the (nominating) story." But that does not mean a conscious--or consistent--effort. More like starlings than a syndicate. And I would add that it's tricker than just maximizing influence on, or audience share: it's how to exert maximum influence without triggering certain kinds of criticism that would de-legitimate that influence. (Sorry for the academic term, but it's the most precise here.)

This process does not require much of a mind; it is an instinct inculcated in those who have risen from the ranks of mere reporters.

That's a good example of what I meant my mindless. If you are raised in a journalistic home (newsroom) you know how to do horse race journalism.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 22, 2008 1:40 AM | Permalink

Dr. Rosen, what I'd like to hear your opinion on is the effect that the mindless behavior of the press has had on the public's knowledge of the world -- sustained, as it has been, for several decades. In particular, are you willing to credit that there are propositions firmly believed by nearly all educated people which are absolutely false, but which can't be publicly refuted because the press cannot understand or accurately convey the refutation?

Posted by: Michael Brazier at January 22, 2008 5:14 AM | Permalink


Great question. Profound, and the timing is exquisite.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 22, 2008 10:12 AM | Permalink

Well, Michael, I would have to know what you mean by "propositions." I tend to shy away from absolute characterizations, which isn't to say I don't occasionally make them myself. Also, it is very hard to make definitive statements about a particular item in public knowledge, especially what created it that way.

Tim: I didn't understand this part...

What I find specifically interesting in recent Pressthink threads is the "expected" normative difference between political rhetoric and journalistic rhetoric.

Could you elaborate, explain?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 22, 2008 3:45 PM | Permalink

This link from STATS on The Worst Science Stories of 2007 may address Mr. Brazier's question to some extent.

Posted by: Ferdy at January 22, 2008 4:49 PM | Permalink

If you want a specific item in "public knowledge" which is clearly wrong, there's an example close at hand: the belief that combat veterans are more likely to be dangerously violent than the general population. Unquestionably this belief is widely held among educated persons in the US, and especially so among reporters. The New York Times saw fit to print a feature article last Sunday, listing killings committed by veterans of Iraq. That article is a perfect example of arranging facts in a way that subtracts from the reader's understanding; for if you compare the rate of killings committed by combat veterans to the same rate for the general population (as Ralph Peters has done, for one) why, it turns out to be lower -- by a factor of five. The real state of affairs is the direct contrary of the common belief among the intelligentsia. Yet the feature article reinforces the common belief, and conceals the real state of affairs. It is appalling journalism.

I mention this case, not to put the Times in the dock, but to raise the question: how many other common beliefs among the intelligentsia were created by journalism of this kind? How many policies have been put forward by elected officials because they were misled by what they read in the newspapers?

Posted by: Michael Brazier at January 22, 2008 6:01 PM | Permalink

One example kinda sorta like that would be that politicians don't keep their campaign promises. Political scientists who have studied it say that most of time a promise clearly made during a campaign is kept, or the politician tries to do so and fails but does not ignore the pledge, or treat it as hot air.

That's a case where cheap cynicism in the press might be a factor in a mistaken public perception that would hold among educated people.

Another case that might be in the vein you speak of would be that during the 1990s as crime rates fell crime coverage increased on television news. (Andrew Tyndall would know more about this than I do.) I believe you could find evidence that such distortion has an effect on how much crime the public thinks is out there, but it would also be very hard to prove that connection. (An area rife with such distortions is all cases where the public estimates risk of calamities.)

A third case would be the people who believe that Al Gore said he invented the Net.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 22, 2008 6:51 PM | Permalink

I suggest the meme that the Eighties were a decade of greed.
Said everywhere. Based, as far as I could tell, on the coverage of leveraged buy-outs and the fees paid to the various firms putting them together.
I recall, also, a number of conservatives citing increased charitable no avail.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 22, 2008 7:41 PM | Permalink

Jay, re: ... "expected" normative difference between political rhetoric and journalistic rhetoric ....

That was a dense sentence. I'll unpack it.

I consider political rhetoric from politicians a different genre than journalistic rhetoric from (political news) journalists.


Genres preserve social order by constraining the speaker and the audience with accepted norms, tastes, and values. And this is exactly the reason why the rhetorical critic must be sensitive to genre.
[see also Perelman]

So what if (political news) journalists' audience, journalists and political speakers don't share/accept the same norms, tastes and values?

Do PressThink's commenters (including Jay Rosen) demonstrate/express an "expected" normative difference when analyzing/critiquing political and political-journalistic rhetoric?

I think they do.

Posted by: Tim at January 22, 2008 8:43 PM | Permalink

Perhaps I should limit the question to false beliefs among educated people that are politically significant. Of the three cases you mention, only the case of opposite trends in crime and coverage of crime has the power to swing an election or influence policy, and I don't recall any national election that did depend on it. (And the bit about Gore "inventing the Internet" is passe. These days the Al Gore joke is that whenever he gives a speech about global warming, the place he gave it sees an unexpected cold snap.) Whereas the case I mentioned feeds into arguments for American pacifism and isolation from foreign affairs, and encourages educated people to avoid military careers; the issues affected by it are always significant, and the last three federal elections arguably turned on them.

Posted by: Michael Brazier at January 22, 2008 9:26 PM | Permalink

Well, I think one obvious example where the press pretty much helped lead people off a cliff was the financial press, and it's utter failure to see through the hype of the Internet bubble. (I was involved in that, too, at the time, as a cub reporter for a magazine covering mutual funds. I signed on in January, 2000. It was a fun and strange ride!)

For a good look at the phenomenon, consider Howie Kurtz's book "The Fortune Tellers." For a woeful look at their pernicious effects on regular people, read David Denby's "American Sucker."

For the short version, you can read Jane Bryant Quinn on financial pornography. She called the shot exactly in 1998.

The financial press also failed to see the S&L crisis brewing, and cheerled real estate and mortgages off a cliff as well.

In each of these cases the press bought into a bunch of hooey, and their all-too-trusting readers paid terrible prices as a result.

It's hard to quantify the damage done by "horse race" political journalism. And I think that as journalism sins go, horse race journalism is pretty far down the list, compared to the failures of the financial journo community.

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at January 22, 2008 11:14 PM | Permalink


Just caught a bit of BBC interviewing some Brit money guys. "Paralyzed by panic" was one comment regarding panicked calls to liquidate.

I suppose it's old hat to blame the twenty-four hour news cycle. But news has to be important. Fortunately, important stuff doesn't come along all that often. So unimportant stuff has to be hyped to convince consumers that they're getting important stuff.

But some important stuff might never see the light of day, if the journos can help it. What would happen if you got the biz and finance journos of Houston together, doped their coffee with sodium pentathol, and introduced the topic of Enron? Did Lay and company do a better job than the CIA at keeping secrets?

I imagine other examples will occur to you.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 22, 2008 11:24 PM | Permalink

I've heard all the explanations of why campaign reporting is so bad and none of it impresses me.

Little of it is unique or insightful, and worst of all, almost none provides me with any useful information as a voter. These 'reporters' are all plainly in it for themselves and each other, and all the talk about how their role is vital to an informed democracy is just talk.

I keep reading about how it would be different if we could go back to when media organizations were not run by profit-minded managers. When was that? The media magnates of history were around decades ago, some very rich indeed, when reporters earned far less.

I.F. Stone wrote some four decades ago that “most American newspapers carry very little news. Their main concern is advertising" and most owners "are businessmen, not newspapermen.” Edward R. Murrow was talking about it in the 1950s. The Newspaper Guild was founded in the 1930s, at least in part to look out for journalists' economic interests. When was this golden age we keep hearing about?

It never existed. I think more good and memorable work was produced when journalism was a poorly-paid trade. If money destroyed journalism, it wasn't in the way that many journalists -- most of whom know little about finance except that it is 'bad' unless it involves their paycheck, which should invariably be larger -- complain of.

These 'reporters' seem to have endless time to write about what other people are writing about polls, and why the polls might be wrong about evangelicals taking part in the Iowa caucus or whether they correctly captured the last-minute decisions of older women in certain parts of New Hampshire.

Could anything be less informative, interesting or relevant to me as a voter, the people that these 'reporters' purport to write for?

They've become Karl Rove wanna-bes, slicing and dicing demographics. But Rove had a good excuse: he was there to win elections, not cover them.

They believe they are independent thinkers, yet the majority of their coverage is cookie-cutter indistinguishable. They claim they're better than bloggers because they have the skills, time and professionalism to dig deep for answers. What, specifically, are they doing that anyone with an opinion and a modem couldn't do?

As simplistic as it is, these folks are doing a better job of giving me an overall view on candidates' stands than any news organization:

And why don't we see more stories like this by the big names of journalism?,0,2187849.story

Why don't we see more such articles on a wide range of subjects -- adult literacy, the drought in the Western states, patent reform, mass transit, the state of the national parks, ID theft, highway safety, teenage pregnancy, gangs, long-term unemployment, port security, the prison system, and so on? We could all come up with an alphabet soup of ideas way beyond the big ones such as Iraq.

I am NOT interested in reading whining about how the Bush administration has left the U.S. in tatters or the Republican "war on science." I will quickly stop reading a story if it's going that way. Most issues we face go back decades or generations, across many administrations and sessions of Congress. I do NOT want to know who, if anyone, is to blame. That's the past -- old news, you know?

I want to know as factually as possible where we are, where we could go, how we could get there, what it would cost, and what each candidate has to say about it. What is their record (votes, bills introduced, bills signed or rejected as executive officials) or speeches. If there is no public record, isn't it the role of the media to get that information for us as voters by asking campaigns and candidates?

Instead of blaming candidates for running issue-free campaigns, which some do and some don't, force them to stop and focus on the issues, big and small.

ENOUGH with polls, ENOUGH with personalities, ENOUGH with race and gender, and ENOUGH pack grandstanding.

Do something useful or go out of business.

Posted by: Diane at January 23, 2008 2:16 AM | Permalink


It doesn't appear they're listening.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 23, 2008 8:04 AM | Permalink

Kevin Drum in Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog...

BLOGS AND THE NARRATIVE....Jay Rosen, complaining yesterday about pervasive horserace campaign coverage from the mainstream media pack, says in passing: "Independent bloggers, who should have more distance from the pack mind (and often do) were not necessarily better on this score."

Rosen was talking specifically about some of the breathless coverage of Hillaryland prior to the New Hampshire primary, but his verdict is also true more generally, isn't it? Of the three basic types of campaign coverage — horserace/process stories; "outrage of the day" hyperventilating; and actual policy coverage — I'd peg the blogosphere's overall percentages at about 40/50/10. That's probably better than Chris Matthews, but not that much better.

I'm not really complaining here. We are what we are, and in many ways blogs deconstruct what's going on better and more honestly than the mainstream talking heads. Still and all, we've ended up pretty narrative driven ourselves, haven't we?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 23, 2008 10:00 AM | Permalink

Tim: I think there is a difference between political speech and the way journalists talk about politics, by which I mean there should be. One of the criticisms I have of the horse race press is that it tends to erode this difference. That's what I was getting at in this section:

Imagine if we had them all -- the whole Gang of 500 -- in a room and we asked them (off the record): How many of you feel roughly qualified to be Secretary of State? Ted Koppel having retired, no hands would go up. Secretary of the Treasury? No hands. White House Chief of Staff? Maybe one or two would raise a hand. Qualified to be President? No one would dare say that. Strategist for a presidential campaign? I'd say at least 200 hands would shoot up. Reporters identify with those guys -- the behind-the-scenes message senders -- and they cultivate the same knowledge.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 23, 2008 10:44 AM | Permalink

I am NOT interested in reading whining about how the Bush administration has left the U.S. in tatters or the Republican "war on science." I will quickly stop reading a story if it's going that way.

Did you catch that, Jay?

Just sayin.'

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at January 23, 2008 10:59 AM | Permalink

One reason, possibly the primary reason, they would think themselves qualified is that they think they know the electorate.

But the fun part would be running the campaign against other campaigns, as if the electorate were "out there" someplace, needing only to be manipulated by a clever campaign manager. Oh, the nuts and bolts, the clever moves, the tactical anticipation of others' tactics, the budgets, the balancing....

I suggest that this, if true, would have the emphasis backwards.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 23, 2008 11:01 AM | Permalink

I had an issue with Josh Marshall at TPM who very clearly stated that political junkies are vitally interested in the horse race. He intended to serve this audience. Perhaps one of the issues is that many newsroom journalists are political junkies. They think their readers are interested in what interests them personally. I know I've been guilty of covering some of my pet notions from time to time.

Posted by: Ferdy at January 23, 2008 11:29 AM | Permalink

Hi Ferdy! I thought this caution from Marshall was interesting. He seems to realize how easy it is to get caught up in "the race" and lose perspective.

Full essay is now here at this post.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 23, 2008 11:36 AM | Permalink

Jay - I did read that in your above post yesterday. This item, posted yesterday is what I had an issue with.

To put it simply, it doesn't surprise me that people think we're dedicating a lot of time to the campaign horse race because that's what we're trying to do (his emphasis)...

But I've always thought (and this is what I meant when I said that this is something that I've thought a lot about since well before I started TPM) that there's something a little 'eat your spinich-ish' about folks who cry out, in the thick of a campaign, how everyone's focusing on the 'horserace' rather than 'the issues'.

Posted by: Ferdy at January 23, 2008 12:13 PM | Permalink

To complete your metaphor, the horse-race stuff would be curly fries with ketchup and the issues spinach--in the view of the news consuming public.
So we would have to be scolded into following the issues.
What if the issues are the cheesburger with a huge slice of Bermuda onion and the horse race is the spinach?
But the journos have this trace mineral shortage which can only be addressed by consuming huge amounts of spinach....

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 23, 2008 1:36 PM | Permalink

That was exactly my point, Richard. I told Marshall that some of us eat spinach not only because it's good for us, but because we like it!

TPM has its own version of navel-gazing--or shall we say that it serves its intended audience--which I thought I was part of, but now I realize that I was mistaken. That's why I don't have it in my favorites list anymore.

Posted by: Ferdy at January 23, 2008 2:01 PM | Permalink

Being told to follow the issues is only "eat your spinach-y" if the recipients of the advice don't like the stuff.
If you/they do, there's no need to nag.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 23, 2008 3:30 PM | Permalink

Richard, are you suggesting the public is Popeye the Sailorman?

Posted by: Michael Brazier at January 24, 2008 4:28 AM | Permalink

I think the press thinks it's Bluto. They're wrong.

And, yeah, the public would like its spinach from time to time.

One of the issues that interests me is the weather channel. It survives because watching reports of weather in faraway places is better than the rest of the television fare. Still, the rest of television hasn't figured that out.

The campaign press seems to think that because horseracing is all that's on, that's what people want, because it's all over the place. Logical, right?

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 24, 2008 7:32 AM | Permalink

You're right, Ferdy. Josh's defense of horse race journalism is the more interesting piece. I may even have to write a reply to it.

Here's our friend Andrew Tyndall at his site... It is Survivor not Seabiscuit

It is so odd that the metaphor in common usage for insider political journalism should belong to a sport whose popularity peaked in the middle of the last century. I mean! Who visits the $2 window at Aqueduct any more? Now, it seems, Horse Race journalism has become as passe as the sport itself.

For Campaign 2008 a new genre of political reporting has been invented: Reality Gameshow journalism. It is a genre that fits the Democratic race just fine but does no favors for the Republicans.

Stop thinking of this election as a race to the wire to be won by the candidate with the finest pedigree, truest form and best connections.

Start thinking of it as a cast of larger-than-life characters, scheming against each other while simultaneously trying to appear attractive to the electorate audience. Week by week the group undergoes media trials such as candidate debates and Sunday morning interviews. Each primary election constitutes another potential elimination round. The winner gets to be a constant television presence in our homes for four years.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 24, 2008 9:29 AM | Permalink

And here's the New Republic blog, The Plank, commenting on my piece...

I think Rosen makes a decent case for restraint in "process" reporting; sure, if the story is so inevitable, why not wait for it to happen instead of jumping the gun?

But more importantly, the argument reinforces how potent the "reusable" who's-gonna-win narratives can be both in the press and among candidates. Doubtless the coverage out of Iowa was infused with the memory of Kerry, whose performance in 2004 seemed to confirm that the Iowa winner enjoys a nomination-sealing domino effect in later states. To a certain extent, Obama followed the recycled logic of the "reality-making machinery." "You guys are a wave and I'm just riding it," he would say to crowds in New Hampshire. Really? *cringe* I guess conventional wisdom is powerful (though as far as I can tell, the mythos of the omnipotent Iowa victor began and ended in 2004).

Clinton has also sought to capitalize on the 2004 John Kerry-as-electable meme. Much was made of his 2003 Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech, when he told Iowans: "Don't just send a message, send a president." Sure, Obama picked up some fawning press about his J-J speech based on the Kerry paradigm, but it was Hillary cashing in more explicitly. As if in direct homage, she spray-painted her buses (again) with the recycled slogan in New Hampshire: "Time to Pick a President." Really? *cringe* The electability argument didn't work out so well the first two times.

So while the real Kerry (good man, big loser) heir may only be discernable in hindsight, it's worth noting that everybody plays the (evil) media memory game to their advantage, even if Rosen thinks such "portability" is damaging to the democratic order. And while I find it maddening, the "circulating library of public truths" also includes voter opinion--whose impressionism is legend. In fact, I'm pretty sure we owe our high-wattage, high profile front-runners this cycle (compared to the dour but faithful Kerry) to the public's fondness for this vague memory game.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 24, 2008 9:49 AM | Permalink

If you do respond, Jay, please let us know when, where, and what (or post it or the link here).

Posted by: Ferdy at January 24, 2008 10:17 AM | Permalink

Jay -- thanks for the link.

I have three points of major disagreement with your thesis and two of concurrence.

1.Your anecdotes of coverage concentrate on the window between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in order to illustrate the emphasis by political journalists on futile and unnecessary attempts to foretell the future. Frankly this looks like cherry picking in order to bolster your argument. No fair description of the political journalism during that period could ignore three elements that do not fit into the Horse Race method: Barack Obama’s inspirational oratory upon winning in Iowa; the debate exchange on ABC News concluding in the “You are likable enough, Hillary” soundbite; Rodham Clinton’s near-lachrymose monologue in the Portsmouth diner. In other words, soundbites from candidates dominated coverage during this period not the Horse Race. Using such soundbites is Reality Gameshow journalism instead.

2.Your characterization of the political press corps as, first and foremost, identifying with campaign strategists is a weak explanation for why these soundbites were played over and over again. The Reality Gameshow journalism model is a stronger explanation. It depicts the campaign as an elaborately choreographed series of tests in the service of the ideology of Authenticity. The thinking goes that if candidates are subjected to enough stress, are caught wrongfooted, have to stare potential failure in the face then, at last, the veneer of talking points and position papers and poll-tested formulations will be stripped away and we will catch a glimpse of the authentic human being beneath the apparatus.

3.Horse Race journalism is indeed, as your argue, teleological, concerned with the question of who will win. Reality Gameshow journalism concentrates instead on the ordeal itself. Thus horse-race-style analysis that purportedly concentrates on voting blocs--Obama is gaining among African Americans, Rodham Clinton has the “waitress vote,” Mike Huckabee and the born agains, John McCain and the maverick veterans--turns out to help delineate the larger-than-life personalities of the candidates as they battle to find who will survive the ordeal. The extreme focus this year on the demographic characteristics of the candidates is a way to turn them into dueling archetypes we can identify with as they duke it out.

On the other hand…

4.The change in focus from Horse Race to Reality Gameshow is the answer to the question you raised about the collapse of the Ben Cramer-Halperin thesis that winning an election campaign is per se proof that a candidate is best qualified to be President. The Reality Gameshow style--in its quest for the Authentic moment--makes the implicit claim that Character, not competence or ideology, is the most important attribute for the job. The aim of this style of journalism is to try to reassure its viewers that they will not suffer voters’ remorse come November. In other words, they have tested the candidates so rigorously and have become so familiar with their tics that we will know their true motivations. Thus we hear the seemingly ridiculous Barbara Walters style questions that round out debates, inquiring into a candidate’s aspirations or foibles or regrets. Insights into how they instinctively react under stress are deemed more important than where they stand theoretically on global warming or universal healthcare.

5.Innocence--“to be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss”--is absolutely maintained by the demise of Horse Race journalism and the rise of Reality Gameshow journalism. The savviness of the spinmeister may be gone. But coverage that values authenticity and personality and intimacy and character is just as innocent, for all that.

So on the face of it this does not seem like a constructive turn, although, I insist, a turn it is. Yet I find comfort in the following…

The Reality Gameshow style offers an answer to the previously imponderable question about why it takes so long for the United States to have an election. The reason the question was imponderable is because seen as a Horse Race, a teleological model, there is an excess of activity that has nothing to do with the result. On the other hand, what if the contest is a ritualized quadrennial national ordeal with larger-than-life characters representing the disparate factions--sociological, regional, ideological, demographic--in our society? Every four years we get together to assess large cultural questions…

* Has feminism advanced enough for us to be happy with a female leader?
* Is the political influence of born-again Christians on the wane?
* Are we colorblind enough to have an African-American in the White House?
* How does the body politic handle the consequences of NAFTA--a decline in the manufacturing base, an increase in the Hispanic population?
* Are the ideological divisions of the babyboom generation stale and irrelevant?

The body politic, as it were, checks its own sociological pulse. That check-up is more salutary than picking the correct winner in November.

At BuzzMachine, Jeff Jarvis, disillusioned by the myopia of opinion polls, has posted a provocative list of measurements for assessing how the election campaign is operating as such a cultural force. He recommends a focus on the viral activity, the intensity, the ferment of ideas, surrounding each candidate, rather than the simple percentage of potential support at the ballot.

If political journalists concentrated on the activity a campaign generates rather than simply the activities of the campaigns themselves, then maybe we could escape both the Horse Race and the Reality Gameshow.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at January 24, 2008 11:19 AM | Permalink

Extremely interesting. I don't see the horse race as explaining everything in the current performance of the campaign press. Perhaps we are in some kind of transition. More later....

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 24, 2008 6:54 PM | Permalink

Jack Shafer, In Praise of Horse-Race Coverage.

Consider the fullness of the metaphor: A bunch of perfectly groomed and tended politicians gather at the starting gate. They all have track records and somebody has placed a bet on them. When the gun sounds, they run like Seabiscuit, frothing and jostling. Some pull up lame before the race concludes. The event, which seems to go on forever, can be a blowout or end in a photo finish. The winner takes a victory bow as the losers regroup for the next heat or depart for the glue factory.

During an actual horse race, nobody wants to hear the announcer drone on about the ponies' dietary regimes. They want to know who's winning, who's gaining, who's in the thick of it, and who can be written off. Are the front-runners burning themselves out and letting a back marker take the prize? That which cannot be compressed into an announcer's play-by-play ends up in the learned pages of the Daily Racing Form. But for immediacy, nothing rivals a great horse-race take.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 25, 2008 9:54 AM | Permalink

Jack Shafer is a journo. He would say that.

Figure the folks in the stands. Each one of them belongs to a group--say eight--whose interests will be affected one way or another by the outcome of the race. In other words, they have a bet down.

But, different from a horse race, they're not sure the payoff for them will be as advertised on the board, despite having backed the winner. They're not sure whether losing the bet means losing the money they put up, or having the government show up and take even more. And which is which, with more whiches involved, keeps changing, or seems to, anyway.
I wouldn't mind losing my $2 bet, but if the winner is going to decide my retirement plans go out the window because my property up north is a wet land--on account of a Conservancy honcho next door wants the scenery to remain untouched--and I can neither turn a shovel of dirt, nor sell it for more than the price of a stale Saltine, I'm concerned.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 25, 2008 4:19 PM | Permalink

Wanna help me out, readers?... I plan to write a follow up post to this one, visiting reactions like...

Kevin Drum in Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog... Indy blogs have been as horse racey as the pros.

This post from Josh Marshall in defense of horse race coverage...

Jack Shafer, also in defense of "horse racism"

Andrew Tyndall at his site on the demise of the horse race model and the rise of the reality show treatment...

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, Merchants of Trivia, thinks Andrew may have a point, "No matter which issues or grass-roots support elevate a candidate to the limelight, in order to stay there he ends up having to play this game, a sort of political version of Fear Factor in which candidates must eat bowl after bowl of metaphorical worms to prove their worthiness."

Wayne Garcia, a Florida journalist, and PressThink fan, who said, "I’m going to be all over the airwaves in the next week talking about the campaigns, being asked who will win or why somebody won and what it all means. I’m going to do my best to keep Rosen’s ending thoughts in mind: [T]he job of the campaign press is not to preempt the voters’ decision by asking endlessly, and predicting constantly, who’s going to win....

What have I got?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 25, 2008 6:36 PM | Permalink

The common thread in all this is, in my opinion, that the rituals of presidential elections, as managed by the press (and make no mistake, the press is managing those rituals) now have no rational relation to the tasks a sitting President is expected to perform. Marshall's and Shafer's defenses of the horse-race metaphor rely on the assumption that the point of a campaign for the presidency is to win the electoral vote; governing the nation is only a diet and exercise regimen, a preparation for the next great effort of a new campaign. This is nothing more than taking means for ends, process for substance, appearances for reality. Obviously the point of campaigning is to govern, not to be victorious.

(Although the horse-race metaphor does fit well for the Democratic nomination contest this year ... Barack Obama doesn't have any clear idea what he'll do if elected, and Hillary Clinton doesn't dare explain what she'll do if elected, so you might as well put them through Survivor: Party Nomination to choose between them.)

Ah well. If reporters want to give the impression of intelligent commentary without really doing any, they might try reporting in a foreign tongue. "Quid quid latine dictum sit, altum videtur."

Posted by: Michael Brazier at January 26, 2008 1:43 AM | Permalink

Brazier --

“…and make no mistake, the press is managing those rituals…”

Agreed that an anthropological insight is required to understand the role these rituals play in our society. Clearly, whatever metaphor is appropriate to describe what is going on, this activity has far more societal importance than the mere selection of the next head of the executive branch of the federal government. So my first advice to PressThink is to elucidate some basic definitions from the field of anthropology about what the function of “ritual” is understood to be.

And, precisely, what is the role of a “manager” with regard to rituals?

What do you mean by “managing”? Orchestrating? Keeping orderly? Mediating? Interpreting? Rendering comprehensible?

Are you implying that the press is a required element without which this ritual cannot proceed? Is your ironclad certainty -- “make no mistake” -- justified?

What about all those non-journalistic viral media that Jeff Jarvis cites at BuzzMachine as springing up around the Presidential contest…the action on YouTube or Facebook, on Twitter and in the blogosphere, in fundraising and the financial futures markets? In what sense of the word “managing” is the press participating in them?

What about the candidates themselves? The political parties, their think tanks, interest groups, component blocs in their coalitions? Are they too being “managed” by the press -- or is the management restricted to the ritual components of the campaign not its political elements?

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at January 26, 2008 11:34 AM | Permalink

I dare say that the posture of "innocence" is indispensable to assuming the priestly role of "managing" these rituals.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at January 26, 2008 11:56 AM | Permalink

Some initial questions/criticisms of horse race/game show campaign coverage:

1. Does horse race coverage provide an accurate or misleading "map of reality" for what's currently happening in the political campaign? If you believe that poll-driven, savvy political reporting is an accurate way to describe current events and predict future results, then you have a good model. If not, then you're either nuts to keep using it as is, or don't care because it "sells."

2. What role does the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle play in your model? Is your model self-fulfilling or does it add uncertainty to predictive ability? Does that matter to you? Are you a player or an unintentional-observer-manipulator? How does it affect your credibility when your model affects outcomes and is therefore manipulated by parties internally and/or externally interested in those outcomes?

3. What is the appropriate balance between poll-driven, savvy horse race/game show coverage and all other types of coverage? What are the other types? If the horse race is the master narrative, and it leaves the public behind, is that the proper model for political news journalism versus sports metaphor media?

Posted by: Tim at January 26, 2008 1:07 PM | Permalink

Some (useful?) links:

Calling elections: the history of horse-race journalism (book)


re: "circulating library of public truths" ... Vladimir Nabokov, Good Readers and Good Writers (web)

Posted by: Tim at January 26, 2008 1:12 PM | Permalink

The posture of innocence may be inherent in calling the horse race, but once calling the race segues into why one horse or another is ahead… innocence lost.

The “herd of independent minds” is an oxymoron that plays to this notion of innocence. Do you really think the heard of independent press minds will react the same way as a herd of independent feminist minds? independent Southern Baptist minds? independent Republican minds? They are not a herd because they have independent minds, they are a herd because of what they share.

A couple posts ago in the comments section of “A Stooge Figure Speaks” Prof Rosen stated:

I never said the American press was in its politics representative of the politics of the American people. I never believed it. I never considered for a second that it may be true, and so I don't feel obliged to "admit" that Bush was right when he made this idiotic point that Bush dead enders repeat endlessly.

I would take this statement further to the American press is not representative of the American people period. I am not sure if Prof Rosen thinks this is good, bad, or inconsequential. I would submit that the press frequently get things wrong not due to their herd of independent minds equaling the media has no mind….. but rather their dependant minds, common values and ways of thinking, is what generates the herd mentality. It is frequently wrong because independant thinking( minds) is not conducive to life in the herd. The fact this herd is not even closely representative of the people in a democratic society is, to me, a big clue to the current woes of the traditional media and press. I know the press is not asking the questions that matter to me, (re. the CNN UTube debacle) they just don’t get it. The special insight (elitist) thing only works if, in fact, the press is smarter than the rest of America. Unfortunately different does not equal smarter.

Posted by: abad man at January 26, 2008 1:40 PM | Permalink

A trip down memory lane ... in parts to spoof the spam filter.

The Invisible Primary (March/April 2003)
The Press-Politics of the Presidential Primary Process (May 2003)
How to Read a Campaign Horse-race Story (November 2003)
As Pre-Primary Season Closes, Questions Cling to Dean's Gains (December 2003)

Posted by: Tim at January 27, 2008 7:06 AM | Permalink

re: Andrew's "Reality Gameshow journalism"

If I was to choose a TV contest metaphor for American politics, I would choose American Idol over Survivor, or a Miss America contest. But I think the contrast might be informative.

I'm not an American Idol watcher, but as I understand the contest, the show provides "insider" insights on the candidates as they progress through the competition, candidates perform in front of judges, the judges critique their performances, and after the pool of candidates have been whittled down, a self-selected "public" votes for who should continue to compete.

This is different than Survivor (another show I don't watch, sigh) where the contestants vote each other out of the competition, or Miss America (which I have been guilty of watching occasionally) where the judges vote the contestants out.

My question for the American Idol fans (and political journalists/critics by way of simile) is what role do the "expert" judges play? Who cares what Randy, Paula or Simon think about a contestant's performance once the public voting starts? They do play a role, have a purpose, in the contest, don't they? What is it?

Somewhat OT: Rollin' the ball ... and Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism.

Posted by: Tim at January 27, 2008 8:45 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Tim.

I don't think Big Tent Democrat read my piece, especially this part... "Because we have evolved a way of talking about the news media that fails to recognize this very basic fact — no mind! can’t decide a thing! — everyone is free to grant more intentionality to the organism than reasonably exists."

Big Tent:

"I do not know if Obama has a good chance to win the nomination. I worry very much about the nature of the coverage of his South Carolina victory. Even absent the focus on race, the story the Media has pushed is how the Clintons lost, not how Obama won. Indeed, one thing is clear, BECAUSE of the Media coverage, an Obama win will be perceived as a clear repudiation of the Clinton legacy by Democrats and the country.

"If Obama is the nominee, the Clintons will NOT be able to help him in the General Election. Not because they would not want to help or that Obama would want their help, but because the Media will not ALLOW them to help Obama."

He doesn't even have to offer a single quote from "the media" in support of these statements. What a strange way of talking.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at January 27, 2008 10:54 AM | Permalink

I think Big Tent is correct in judging that, if Obama is nominated, the Clintons cannot help him in the general election; but not in tracing the cause to the media's intentions. Rather, the lack of policy differences between Clinton and Obama means that Obama can be nominated only by drawing a contrast between his personal qualities and the Clintons'. That is, he has to impugn their characters: claim they can't be trusted, make them look corrupt and deceitful. And once you've done that to somebody, you can't expect them to help you later on, especially if you did it by telling the truth. Even if the media had a mind, it couldn't save Obama from looking the hypocrite if he trashed Hillary to get the nomination, then embraced her to get elected.

Posted by: Michael Brazier at January 27, 2008 8:07 PM | Permalink

Dr. Rosen, did you happen to run across this? It looks like a case study of reporting that subtracts from the public's understanding:

“What has essentially happened since 9/11 has been that Bush has repeated the same themes, and framed those themes the same whenever discussing the War on Terror,” said Kuypers, who specializes in political communication and rhetoric. “Immediately following 9/11, the mainstream news media (represented by CBS, ABC, NBC, USA Today, New York Times, and Washington Post) did echo Bush, but within eight weeks it began to intentionally ignore certain information the president was sharing, and instead reframed the president's themes or intentionally introduced new material to shift the focus.”

This goes beyond reporting alternate points of view. “In short,” Kupyers explained, “if someone were relying only on the mainstream media for information, they would have no idea what the president actually said. It was as if the press were reporting on a different speech.”

Posted by: Michael Brazier at January 28, 2008 1:00 AM | Permalink


The MSM can still do that, but, with the 'net, with less effect.

The 'net's contradicting the professional journos is a problem the journos haven't solved, nor will they.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 28, 2008 9:35 AM | Permalink

Sorry to say this because I'm saying it sincerely. It seems few if any people who write for or respond to this 'blog' have any idea how business or politics is run. Do you all feel catharsis by opining from your dismal cubbyholes, like characters from a Samuel Beckett play with enlarged egos in a world that renders you politically and existentially non-entities? When you learn you are part of the problem by acknowledging the banality of the commercial press supported by the banal concerns of the American electorate, maybe, just maybe, you'll take your business elsewhere and stop being a part of the infinite regression of reflections that renders you mere phantoms, not even protoplasmic, in a Borgian concoction of reality. "If one is not a party to the sins of this world, one must be a victim of them." Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ironically, this Rosen character, a professor at NYU, presumably, is in actuality reaping the benefits of the sinners--where do you think his salary comes from? From no less an institution that garners much of its tuition from 'professional business' courses in continuing ed. and has a medical center named after one of the largest purveyors of tobacco in the world. To paraphrase Shakespeare,'s Timon of Athens, 'Oh, thou wall, dive in the earth, and fence not the philistines...Slaves and fools, take your master's stick and beat out his brains.'

Posted by: al coover at January 29, 2008 12:03 AM | Permalink

I can't speak for anyone else, al coover, but I get my catharsis by reading the works of the New Space Princess Movement. My purpose in posting here is to induce Dr. Rosen to join the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy -- a far more serious business. See you in Tlon!

Posted by: Michael Brazier at January 29, 2008 2:29 AM | Permalink

Sorry, al coover, what is your point exactly? I am unable to determine exactly what it is you are trying to say, although it seems to be larded with a large dose of condescension and a healthy helping of ad hominem fallacy.

Posted by: Graham Shevlin at January 29, 2008 1:23 PM | Permalink

While you're being all independent and everything, you have the excuse to ignore the goings-on at State and FBI.
See Pajamas Media, "Treason at The State Department" about a whistle-blower.
Several big names, including Daniel Ellsberg ('scuse me, St. Daniel), have remarked on the "stunning" silence from the American press.

Safer to parse polls, and call it journalism.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at January 31, 2008 8:09 AM | Permalink

From the Intro